State Standardized Tests/ SOL Accommodations For Low Vision

Every state has their own form of standardized tests. In my home state of Virginia, we have the Standards of Learning exams, most commonly referred to as SOLs. At least one of these tests is administered a year, from third grade to twelfth grade, and students sometimes take up to four of these exams. While they technically don’t count for a grade, students need to pass a certain number of SOLs in order to advance in school or graduate. For the majority of the student population, the tests are administered online with fill in the blank, choose multiple answers, and multiple choice questions, in addition to exams where the student writes an essay. There’s only one problem with these digital exams- they can’t be enlarged.

Before the digital exams came out, everyone took exams on pencil and paper, but I had a special exam that was in large print. In third grade, my first year of taking the SOLs, the school forgot to place an order for all four of my exams, so when test day came, I didn’t have a test, so the school decided I would go sit in a classroom with first graders while the rest of the class took exams. When the tests showed up a week later, I had to take all of the tests in one day, as opposed to having one day to complete each test. Luckily, the test proctor gave me candy inbetween tests as a way to apologize for what was going on. Ordering tests early is extremely important, as if you have a student who uses large print in the classroom, they need it in the testing environment too.

In middle school, the tests converted to a digital format, and I was beyond excited for this. I couldn’t wait to be able to enlarge text and graphs how I needed them, and be able to work with computers, since I love technology. As I expressed my excitement, someone turned to me and said “oh, you can’t enlarge this. The magnification feature is locked to prevent cheating.” While this was before I knew a lot about assistive technology and accessibility, I still thought that made absolutely no sense. How is being able to see something clearly considered cheating?

I think a lot of the stigma about receiving a large print test started once the digital tests started being used. The large print test was printed on ridiculously large paper, since it took up three desks in size. The text was enlarged to size 20 point font, and at the time I also had accommodations to use pens and highlighters, while other students had to use pencils. One interesting thing is that while the rest of the class could use a calculator, I was not permitted to use one because they did not have one that I could see. Another fun fact about the test is that the ten field/test questions on the traditional exam are eliminated, as are the fill in the blank, true/false, pick multiple, and other free response question formats. I had less questions than everyone else, and the questions were multiple choice. One year, I had a teacher complain to the principal that I finished before everyone else, to which my family and I had to explain that I had ten less questions than everyone else, so naturally I would finish quicker. I also didn’t have to transfer my answers to a Scantron document, so that saved time as well.

I always managed to pass my SOLs until I took geometry. My geometry teacher was awesome, and probably one of the best math teachers I had in school because they understood how to create accessible materials. Unfortunately, the people who created the SOLs did not know how to create accessible materials, as my mom and I found out that graphs and other images were only enlarged to 113% (as of 2017, they are now enlarged 166%, but since I receive materials enlarged to around 250%, this still wouldn’t be large enough). I wound up failing the SOL because I had so much difficulty with the graphs and shapes, but I was eligible to retake the exam the next semester.

As a student with an increasing interest in assistive technology, I suggested that the test be broadcast on a projector in a classroom so I could work out the problem on the white board and then record my answer in the test booklet. It was easier than magnifying the test, as my eyes hurt whenever I used a magnifying glass, and I was not provided any other assistive technology like a CCTV. Because I had sensitivity to flashing lights as well as lights in general, I had to take the exam in a classroom that was almost completely dark, with my case manager as a proctor (who later told me they were worried about falling asleep while I took my exam). I wound up failing the exam on the second try as well, but only by two questions. Since I passed my algebra 2 SOL (using the same projector accommodations, and still without a calculator), and I only needed to pass two math SOLs to graduate, we decided not to worry about geometry anymore.

When I moved to a different high school junior year, I got the opportunity to finally use a calculator on my SOLs. I was recommended the myScript calculator app, which would be enabled in guided access mode so I couldn’t use the Internet or any other apps. This was extremely helpful, and I managed to do very well on my chemistry SOL because of it. I remember being very excited about this calculator, to which my guidance counselor asked if I wanted to try my geometry SOL again, and I said that I’d really rather not.

I graduated with an advanced diploma from Virginia public schools in 2015, meaning I had passed at least two English exams, two math exams, two science exams, two history exams, and another exam in one of those subjects. Since I have graduated, the E-Bot Pro, my favorite CCTV, has been approved for use with the SOL. Students can also apply for accommodations to use portable CCTVs such as the SmartLux or other video magnifiers on the exam. As I like to say, everyone has the right to see the same things as everyone else, and that applies to testing as well. I hope my experiences with the SOL can help other students with low vision taking standardized tests, and that they may be able to do better than I did.

If you have any specific questions about my SOL accommodations, feel free to comment below, as comments go directly to my email. I will do my best to respond.



Google Chromecast Review

Occasionally, I have trouble focusing my eyes to read text on my phone or tablet. In these cases, zooming in is futile, and I find it easier to focus through the top half of the bifocal in my glasses. Instead of bending my head at weird angles or holding my device up higher, I use a Google Chromecast to project my screen onto the TV- no wires or cables necessary.

The Chromecast is a $35 device that allows the user to connect their computer, tablet, or phone to their TV. The device is plugged into a HDMI port on the TV, and it also uses a power outlet. By using the same wifi hotspot as the other device, the Chromecast can project internet tabs, apps, and more onto a TV. My family has at least three of these devices in the house, and I even brought one to college with me. Here are some of the ways I have used it, both as assistive technology and just as a useful resource with my various devices.

Setting it up

To set up the device, simply plug one end into the wall and the other end into the HDMI port of the TV, which is best described as a rectangle with a smaller rectangle on top. After that, go to the Chromecast set up website or app to finish the process, which includes connecting it to a wifi hotspot and giving it a name.

If you are setting it up at college, you may need to register the MAC address first, as I explained in my post about the Amazon Echo Dot, since chances are you have to use a username and password to log on to the school wifi. My school has a device registration website where the user can register up to five wireless devices that connect to the unsecured internet hotspot. By registering the MAC address on the college website, which can be found in the Chromecast app settings, it can be used on a college campus without any complicated networks to set up. I found that I am able to easily use the device no matter what wifi hotspot my other devices are connected to.

Android phone

With most later versions of Android, 6.0 and up, the user can easily cast their entire phone screen by swiping down on the status bar and selecting cast. I use this late at night when I have trouble focusing my eyes on text messages, or when I am using an app that has small font. This is also useful when I am demonstrating a function on my phone to someone, as it is more practical to look up at a screen than to look over my shoulder.

iPad

Many apps on the iPad support streaming to Chromecast, including Netflix, YouTube, Google Chrome, Google Video, and others. I use Google Chrome the most out of those three apps to broadcast tabs I am working on, watch videos, enlarge files, and more. YouTube has also been very helpful when I have to take notes on something at the same time- the video or app doesn’t have to be open on the iPad in order for it to broadcast. With the Google Video and Netflix apps, I have been able to watch movies with my friends who live in other states and iMessage or talk about the movie at the same time.

Google Chrome

With my desktop and laptop computers, I have been able to mirror tabs open in Google Chrome onto my TV flawlessly. Because some websites are impossible to zoom in on, I often will broadcast them to the TV to read information better. Extensions such as Adblock are still able to be used on the screen. Most recently, I broadcast a PDF file that I opened in Google Chrome to the TV so I could see it better.

Bonus offers

At times, the Chromecast will have special offers available for users. Some offers have included free trials, free movie rentals, and even Google Play credit which can be used to buy apps, movies, books, games, TV shows, etc in the Google Play store.

Overall review

In the two years I have been using it regularly, I have found this device to be incredibly useful and an affordable alternative to a smart TV, and it’s incredibly easy to use- my parents who describe themselves as technology challenged are able to use the device with ease. With all of the bonus offers, the device has paid for itself, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who benefits from a larger screen.

I received no compensation for this review and purchased this item on my own.  This is a completely unbiased review.

Eschenbach SmartLux Review

I was at a low vision exam when I got on the subject of assistive technology with the ophthalmologist. He told me he had some “toys” that I could try out. At first, he brought out some colored filters to put on top of paper, and page guides. But then he brought out the Eschenbach SmartLux, and I told my mom that I didn’t want to leave that day without one of my own.

The Eschenbach SmartLux is a portable CCTV that’s about the size of a smartphone. It can zoom in up to 12x and has its own built in kickstand on the back for hands free use. It uses large buttons in order to control the device, with tactile labels to help assist users.

It has different contrast settings for the images, including natural light, white on black, black on white, black on yellow, and yellow on black. I typically work with black on white or black on yellow, unless I’m working with a photograph. In the white on black display mode, I am able to read even fine pencil marks, something I can’t do with any other device. It’s easy to operate since there are only four buttons- zoom in/out, change contrast, freeze image, and on/off. The display feels natural for me to read on, even in bright sunlight, but I also am used to reading on a screen for long periods of time.

This device is worth its eight ounce weight in gold. Last year for my literature class, we had to read a graphic novel that was not available digitally. Using the SmartLux, I was able to easily read the novel from a paper copy I got from the library. I’ve also used it in restaurants to read menus and to read forms, and it’s been fantastic.  Because of its ability to detect pencil in high contrast displays, I’ve also  been able to use it to view drawings from my highly talented friends.

Even though it was expensive, costing $600, this little device has been perfect in situations where my E-Bot Pro would be too large or too heavy for me to transport. I can’t use conventional magnifying lenses due to the prism in my glasses, so these digital magnifiers have given me the freedom to access print materials along with my peers, something I am very grateful for.

E-Bot Pro Review

Over the summer, I had the fun of visiting the assistive technology lab affiliated with the Department of Blind and Visually Impaired. The day I visited, a vendor was demonstrating a new CCTV that had been approved for use on standardized tests and that used my beloved iPad. I was super excited to see what it was.

E-Bot Pro system with iPad and projector with book underneath

The E-Bot Pro by HIMS inc., is a relatively new CCTV that looks like a projector. It can be cast onto an iPad screen via the E-Bot Pro app or plugged into a larger monitor, though I typically find myself using it on my iPad. It is controlled using either a joystick or on the touch screen of the iPad using familiar gestures like pinch to zoom in and dragging a finger across the display to move the camera. Speaking of display, it can accommodate several different color modes such as white on black, yellow on black, black on green, and more, as well as allowing the user to adjust for contrast. It takes up only about 12″ of space on a desk, though I would recommend having a two desk setup or a large table to use it on just so you don’t risk knocking it over.

I was blown away by how clear text reads on the E-Bot Pro, especially with fonts that tend to be blurry for me such as Times New Roman. The images are shockingly clear and the zoom (up to 50x) is very easy to adjust. The system also is able to OCR documents and use its own built in screen reader and voice guide to help the user. I did find it had some issues with images that were very light gray, like pencil, and also with fonts smaller than 6 pt. In cases like this, I just ask someone to trace over the image using a high contrast marker or pen. Other than that, the camera works flawlessly, and I appreciate the automatic scrolling mode that allows the camera to move while I read information on the screen. Another cool thing the camera does is rotate. I’m not limited to seeing just what’s directly below the camera- it rotates about 270┬░. I find this especially helpful when the professor is drawing on the board, and have also used the functionality to read signs outside my window. The camera isn’t loud at all and it doesn’t distract other students.

Teachers and school administrators alike may panic over having a wireless device in the classroom. However, the E-Bot Pro is not connected by Bluetooth, but by its own wifi hotspot. While the device is connected, the user cannot access any other internet sources, and if guided access is enabled, the device is restricted to only the E-Bot app. I used this device to take exams in the classroom for my geology class this semester, and my professor not only embraced it, but was fascinated with the technology. I was able to complete assignments at a large table with my screen facing a wall so people couldn’t see over me.

If you find yourself not being able to afford the E-Bot Pro (after all, it is $3500), there are still opportunities for you to be able to use one. I received mine at no cost to me as part of my vocational rehabilitation services through the Department of Blind and Visually Impaired, since it helps me succeed in school and achieve my goal of employment. Another option is to talk to your school district’s assistive technology or vision impairment coordinator about buying the system, and say that you and other students to benefit from. Alternatively, look at other school districts or organizations that may have one for you to use, like an accessibility library, state assistive technology system, or similar.

Overall, the E-Bot Pro is one of my favorite high-tech devices, and I would recommend it to anyone who is semi-proficient with technology, or at least with the iPad. 

Note- This post is not sponsored nor was I paid to write it, I just genuinely love this device!